Just call it "The Battle Over the Tithonia."
A female monarch butterfly--gender identified by butterfly expert Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis and Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology--fluttered into our bee garden early this morning and dropped down on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
Her landing was perfect. The monarch (Danaus plexippus), a species that Sharpio rightfully says "requires no description"--claimed her flower as several male long-horned sunflower bees, Melissodes agilis, began targeting her.
Talk about a friendly "welcoming party." Not!
Those Melissodes agilis aren't called "agile" Melissodes agilis for nothing.
The monarch zipped over to another Tithonia, only to be trailed by the Melissodes dive bombers.
After foraging on her third flower and failing to evade the tactical squad, the monarch apparently figured it just wasn't worth her efforts.
Off she went, escorted out of the bee garden by the bomb squad.
"Summertime, and the livin' is easy," belted out Ella Fitzgerald.
She wasn't singing about bees, but she could have been.
Summertime, and the livin' is easy
Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high
Oh, your daddy's rich and your ma is good-lookin'
So hush little baby, Don't you cry.--George Gershwin.
Not always so easy if you're a sunflower bee (Melissodes agilis) foraging on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia).
Here you are, nearly tangled in a thicket of yellow pollen. You're absorbed. Totally. In fact, you're absolutely oblivious to your surroundings.
Suddenly, you feel as if you're being watched. Watched. Targeted. Bombarded.
Fact is, you are.
Off in the distance, another male bee is speeding straight toward you in the proverbial beeline maneuver in a territorial war.
Pull up! Pull up! Ground proximity warning system.
Whew! That was a close one.
Indeed, some bees seem to possess Superman's extraordinary power of "faster than a speeding bullet." They're just lacking a blue costume, a red cape and an "S" on their thorax.
The butterfly doing the fluttering in our garden is the Gulf Fritillary, Agraulis vanillae, a showy reddish-orange Lepitopderan that lays its eggs on our passionflower vine (Passiflora).
The bee doing the speeding-bullet routine is the male longhorned digger bee, Melissodes agilis. They are so territorial that they claim ALL members of the sunflower family in our garden: the blanket flowers (Gallardia), the Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) and the purple coneflowers (Echinacea purpurea).
They relentlessly patrol the garden and dive-bomb assorted bumble bees, carpenter bees, honey bees, sweat bees, wasps, syrphid flies, butterflies and even stray leaves that land on "their" flowers. (Their eyesight is not as good as Superman's.)
Why? They're trying to save the pollen and nectar resources for the Melissodes agilis females. And trying to entice and engage the girls.
Last Sunday we watched a Gulf Frit touch down on the Tithonia. Just as it was gathering some nectar, a speeding bullet approached.
If it were a horse, it would have been Secretariat.
If it were a track star, it would have been "Lightning Bolt" Usian St. Leo Bolt.
If it were a car, it would have been a Hennessey Venom GT.
If it were a plane, it would have been a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird.
Swoosh! As the longhorned digger bee rifled by, the startled Gulf Frit shot straight up. Straight up.
Frankly, the Gulf Frit could have "leaped a tall building in a single bound."
For months, I've been waiting ah, so patiently (well, not always s-o-o-o patiently) for the gulf fritillary butterfly to touch down on our Mexican sunflower, Tithonia.
A perfect match, I figured. The showy reddish-orange butterfly (Agraulis vanillae) sipping nectar from the equally orange and showy Mexican sunflower.
No such luck. Every time I'd check the yard for the special butterfly-blossom scenario, it was always landing on something else: multi-colored lantana, lavender lantana, and the passion flower vine (genus Passiflora).
And occasionally, a pomegranate tree or tomato plant.
Oh, sure, it did visit the Tithonia, but it would vanish before I could grab the camera.
However, on Sunday, following the San Francisco Giants' game, I was thinking orange. Bright orange. Baseball orange. I stepped outside, and voila!
Touchdown! The perfect match!
The butterfly lingered long enough for me to capture its image, a side view of its silver-spangled wings, as well as a bird's eye view (Please, scrub jays, don't eat my butterfly.) It then fluttered off to the passion flower vine.
The gulf flit was once prevalent in the Sacramento area in the 1960s, but "it seems to have died out by the early 1970s," according to butterfly expert Art Shapiro, professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California, Davis.
It's been making a comeback in the Sacramento area since 2009.
Sunday was a perfect comeback day. And a perfect touchdown day!
They're ambush predators.
Here you are, a bee, touching down on a flower and little do you know there's a patient and persistent crab spider lying in wait.
Sometimes they're camouflaged, matching the color of a blossom, like a yellow crab spider on a gold coin, or a pinkish-white crab spider on sedum.
But there was no missing this white crab spider on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) last weekend. It stood out like a snowy owl perched on a crate of crimson pomegranates.
Crab spiders belong to the family Thomisidae and are often called "flower crab spiders." They're not web weavers or jumping spiders. They're ambush specialists that trap unsuspecting prey.
If you're wondering why some honey bees, leafcutter bees, blue orchard bees or sweat bees don't go home at night, the crab spider is one of the reasons.